In a Class of Their Own 

On the football field, Cal has shown it has few equals. But in class, student athletes are separate and unequal.

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The dicier issue is that many scholarship recipients come to the university more interested in sports than in the classroom, and some lack the study skills to compete with Cal's general population. Many attend study hall merely to fulfill a weekly requirement. The unsupervised "quiet study" area upstairs in the Athletic Study Center is actually the loudest part of the building. Most students clock in to get their compulsory seven hours out of the way, but spend the time gabbing with one another instead of studying. Left to their own devices, they would prefer to sit around and discuss football, or predict who will be drafted first for the NFL. Of course, it is hard to study over the perennial drone of voices and the latest Usher song constantly bleeping from everyone's cell phones. This is why -- especially in revenue sports like football, which grants 85 full scholarships every year -- students are closely monitored by coaches, tutors, and advisers.

Once scholarship recipients arrive at UC Berkeley, many are so segregated from the rest of the student body that they could be living in a parallel universe. Freshmen are clumped together in residence halls, where they typically don't interact with other students because their schedules are tightly circumscribed by daily practices that can clock in at eight hours, if you include morning weightlifting. Moreover, many athletes' sheer physicality makes them stand out on campus. "I've read a number of essays by student athletes who say they're hesitant to go to the library for fear that everyone will immediately know they're athletes," Mirabelli said. "And if they do anything that appears to be awkward, they're going to be outed as being the 'dumb jock.'"

In the summer of 2002, a freshman basketball player approached me with an analysis of linguist Robin Lakoff's essay, "The Grooves of Academe." In her text, Lakoff explained how academics jockey for power by learning how to talk the talk. If you don't know the "insider" collegiate vocabulary, she observed, you're perennially out of place. The basketball player wanted to know why his instructor had drawn a red slash through the first sentence of his paper: "I think there's a lot of irony going on here."

I told the student he was more right than he probably knew, but that if he expressed his thoughts like that, his instructor would not take him seriously for precisely the reasons that Lakoff had identified. At an elite university like Berkeley, the stuff you say often matters less than how you say it, which makes it doubly hard for underprepared students to write successful papers.

In most cases, the tutoring process amounts to me translating an essay assignment from wonk-speak into basic English, talking the student through his thoughts, and then translating them back into wonk-speak. Occasionally, the emphasis on writerly stylings outpaces the actual fleshing-out of ideas, and sometimes I lose students along the way. After all, many come to sessions after ten-hour days of workouts, classes, and meetings, and seem too burnt out by that point to grapple with alien concepts such as "identity formation" or "cultural discourse."

During the summer of 2004, my tutoring sessions with freshman linebacker Marlin Simmons often devolved into conversations about his life in Compton. At first I thought he was reluctant to show me a paper he had written about Tupac Shakur because he didn't want to open it up for critique. But eventually, I realized there might be other reasons a black guy from Compton wouldn't want a white female college graduate telling him how to talk about race and identity. There was a lot of irony going on there, too. So instead, I listened to his stories.

After all, Simmons didn't really come to Cal; Cal came to him. Growing up in Compton, the future linebacker garnered his tackling skills by fighting against the gang members on his block: "Where I lived, you got shot or beat up for wearing the wrong color in the wrong 'hood," he recalled. One day when he was thirteen, four guys knocked him over a Cheetos stand for wearing blue in his predominantly Blood 'hood. After he punched the largest guy out, they ran off and reappeared with guns. Simmons sprinted to a nearby elementary school and hid in the bathroom for three hours until the crackle of gunfire subsided. Although he avoided gangbanging, he learned how to dodge bullets and fight well enough to earn respect on his block. In high school, he transferred these skills to football, and became one of the six top players on his team. Citing "girls and video games" as his other extracurricular activities, Marlin is hard-pressed to think of a high-school class that he liked all that much. But that didn't matter, because football became his passport out of the 'hood. During his sophomore year in high school, he started receiving letters of interest from various colleges, choosing Cal on his mother's recommendation.

Simmons started at UC Berkeley in the summer before his freshman year by enrolling in UC Berkeley's Summer Bridge program, which is designed to close the gap between freshmen from underprivileged backgrounds and the rest of the student body. Enrolling 140 students -- about 25 of whom are athletes, on average -- Summer Bridge operates on the idea of making up for lost time. Cal's wider freshman population may report higher SAT scores on the whole, but many of them had the benefit of private schools or Kaplan prep courses not available to these students.

After four weeks of Bridge, Simmons went straight to football's weeklong boot camp, where he endured two practices a day and was allowed no contact with anyone except his teammates. He came back refreshed and ready to start a full course load at Cal: African-American Studies, Education 52: "Understanding Language in Society," and Education 75: "Introduction to Sports in Higher Education." And, of course, football.


In the Classroom

Once students like Simmons arrive at Cal, they are advised to take courses like Ed. 52 and Ed. 75, which, although open to everyone, cater to athletes because the classes are held between practices, taught by people who work in the Athletic Studies Center, and focus on sports-related issues. Van Rheenen, who teaches Ed. 75, developed the curriculum after noticing that many athletes -- particularly young black men on the football and basketball teams -- were feeling exploited by the university and using that as an excuse to disengage from the academic process. "I thought that was painfully problematic, because the ones who would lose in the end were these young men," he says. "They were in some ways internalizing this exploitation, but struggling against it in a very self-destructive manner."

Van Rheenen tries to invert this relationship by teaching the athletes to reflect on their own position at the university. Thus, the thrust of Ed. 75 is to recast student-athletes as overachievers -- the Horatio Alger ideal of a person who plays by the rules, and triumphs. Incurably optimistic, Van Rheenen sees himself as a kind of academic cheerleader who shuttles them through the process: "Read Gramsci, read Marx, and tool yourself with the ability to actually intellectualize and communicate about this, as opposed to just sitting blindly on the side and saying 'I'm being screwed, I'm being used.'"

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